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Wind River (2017)

bc04d231729f42fe8d3d737197c59989Wind River (2017)
Directed by: Taylor Sheridan
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Graham Greene, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Kelsey Chow, James Jordan

After a long summer full of exciting and hotly anticipated mainstream films falling sadly below short of expectations, Taylor Sheridan’s Cannes favorite Wind River feels like a revelation. Sheridan is perhaps best-known for penning 2016’s Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, and Denis Villeneuve’s incredible 2015 film Sicario. With these impressive credits to his name, it’s no surprise that Wind River is another notch in an already impressive catalogue. The crime-drama is a well-worn genre with dozens of variants and sub genres that fit within in, and Sheridan manages to make his latest film feel fresh and inventive, even when his story is visiting familiar territory. Wind River is a visceral, thrilling, well-acted shot in the arm that the late-summer movie scene so badly needed.

Wind River takes place in the real-life Indian reservation of the same name, where Fishing and Wildlife Service worker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) has discovered the frozen body of 18-year old Natalie Hanson. All signs point to foul play, as the girl has been found out of the way and was not wearing shoes at the time of her death. Fresh-faced FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is called in to help crack the case. Banner along with Cory and the Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene) immediately get down to business in order to solve yet another untimely death within the Reservation. What comes next is tragic, brooding, and at all times tense.

One of my favorite aspects of Wind River is the performance of Jeremy Renner as the grief-stricken Cory Lambert. Renner seems to be channeling his inner Clint Eastwood in his performance – his stoic, unflinching nature is prevalent throughout the film, but he also isn’t afraid to effectively emote when it’s required of him. This is the most I’ve ever enjoyed Renner as a serious performer – it’s certainly a far cry from his recent phoned in Marvel appearances. The more we as an audience find out about the character of Cory Lambert, the more I appreciated the subtleties Renner was bringing to the table.
Another incredibly strong aspect of Wind River is Taylor Sheridan’s original screenplay – it’s clear from the start that Sheridan cares a great deal about the subject matter at hand. His writing of the film’s more procedural elements is realistic and perfectly believable, and his understanding of the perils of modern life on the Reservation is dealt with very sensitively and with obvious passion. The film is well-paced and doesn’t take too long to establish our cast of characters – motivations are made immediately clear, and we have some understanding of what direction our characters are headed in. While I can’t claim that Wind River is devoid of cliches, Sheridan’s script does enough with those cliches to make them feel fresh and exciting once again.

Supporting his script is Sheridan’s tremendous direction and eye for detail. He continuously ratchets up the tension until the film is at a fever pitch – Wind River’s climactic moments are some of its best. The highlight of this escalating tension and attention to detail comes late in the film – we’re introduced to a host of new characters who we immediately assume are up to no good. The story of Natalie’s disappearance is told through flashbacks, and many of these new characters make prominent appearances – it’s clear that nobody here is innocent. There’s a shootout late in the film that is handled in a way that I’ve never seen before – dozens of bullets are fired and yet hardly any of them seem to actually make contact with their targets. The shootout is awkward and chaotic and feels perfectly genuine because of it.

The last highlight of the film for me are two of the supporting performances found within. Gil Birmingham’s small turn as Natalie’s father Martin is incredibly emotional and really helps to nail home what exactly is at stake with the investigation. If I had my money on a dark horse early-Oscar nomination, I’d put it on Gil Birmingham. Graham Greene’s turn as the Tribal Police Chief is also memorable, as he brings a sense of humor to the picture, but never allows it to distract from the task at hand. His presence feels necessary throughout the film, rather than feeling like an afterthought. Both men turn in terrific supporting performances, and I desperately hope they get the attention they so very deserve.
Wind River is easily my favorite film of 2017 at the moment, and for very good reason. It’s an incredibly strong entry from an emerging voice in Hollywood, featuring tense storytelling, an incredible lead performance from Jeremy Renner, tight pacing, and impressive supporting performances. It tells an important story that deals with the current Native American missing women’s crisis, and feels incredibly relevant today. Wind River pulls not a single punch and I appreciated that a great deal – it’s visceral, gut wrenching, and horrifying in the best way. Wind River gets my highest recommendation.


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End of Year 2015 – Best Films of 2015 (#5-#1)

meearl5. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Directed by: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Written by: Jesse Andrews
Starring: Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, RJ Cyler, Nick Offerman, Molly Shannon, Jon Bernthal, Connie Britton

A film that has seemingly dropped in esteem since its film festival run earlier in the year, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is easily the most touching film I saw all year long.  It managed to surprise me with its ending, despite constantly giving me reason to doubt the film’s bravery.  Me and Earl the Dying Girl sees a film-obsessed young man (Greg) and his bestfriend (Earl) befriending Rachel, who has recently been diagnosed with cancer.  The two young men decide to make a film for young Rachel, and along the way do a lot of soul searching and finding of themselves.  It’s a beautiful and hilarious coming-of-age story that features highly energetic direction in the vain of Wes Anderson, and the performances from Thomas Mann, Olivia Cooke, and RJ Cyler are all the best breakout performances of the year.  While it may not be a film for everybody, I found it to be undeniably charming and full of life, and at the end of the day, that’s all I ask for a film to be.  You can read my full-length review here.

SICARIO14. Sicario
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro, Daniel Kaluuya, Victor Garber

Another movie I reviewed earlier in the Fall, Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario was a thriller the likes of which I hadn’t seen since Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty back in 2012.  The film sees FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) enlisted by mysterious government agents (played by Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro) to aid in the war against major drug cartels along the border area between the United States and Mexico.  Villeneuve’s Sicario is incredibly suspenseful, and has a great deal to say about the morals and ethics employed in the war on drugs in North America.  It’s a film that features only the greyest of moral areas throughout, rather than giving everything to the audience in easy to understand, black and white ideals.  Villeneuve’s direction is tight and deliberately paced, never opting for cheap thrills but instead opting to build suspense like a beautiful crescendo.  Backing up Villeneuve’s understated direction is more incredible photography by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is widely considered to be one of the best in the game.  Emily Blunt gives a career best performance as Kate Macer, never feeling too comfortable in her own skin, nor is she able to trust anybody around her – whether they’re considered to be friend or foe.  It’s a wonder that Blunt wasn’t nominated for Best Actress at this years Academy Awards, but that says a great deal more about the strength of that category.  Blunt’s lead performance is wonderfully complemented by that of Benicio Del Toro, who had an incredible return to form in Sicario.  Brooding, mysterious, and dangerous as hell, Del Toro’s Alejandro is easily the most intimidating film character of 2015.  If you’re not sold on Sicario, you can check out my full-length review of it here.

1401x788-Screen-Shot-2015-11-02-at-11.06.31-AM3. Anomalisa
Directed by: Charlie Kaufman, Duke Johnson
Written by: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tom Noonan

Writer-director Charlie Kaufman stole my heart years ago after I saw Adaptation., Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Being John Malkovich, all of which he penned.  Kaufman’s latest feature, Anomalisa, hits familiar notes – but does it in such a human way that it’s undeniably genius.  After falling in love with his directorial debut Synecdoche, New York, I was convinced that Kaufman could only go up from there.  And boy was I right about that one.  Anomalisa follows Michael Stone (David Thewlis), a customer service expert in the city for a convention, as he struggles to make any significant connections with those around him.  The entire cast (save for two characters) is voiced by Tom Noonan, with the exceptions being David Thewlis’ Stone, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Lisa.  The animation – which is a sort of blend of traditional computer animation and puppetry – coupled with hilarious and unique voice acting, makes Anomalisa a truly once in a lifetime experience.  It’s deeply moving, always funny, and depressingly thought-provoking, an even greater feat, seeing as how Kaufman’s second film is merely ninety minutes long.  I can’t promise you that it’s going to feel satisfying, nor can I promise you that Anomalisa is going to spoon feed you answers, but I can promise you that you’ve never seen anything like this before.  It’s an incredibly important look at loneliness, anxiety, and depression, masked as a relatively quirky and relaxed dramedy.  This film easily would have been my number one film in a weaker year.  

the_revenant_trailer_grab_h_20152. The Revenant
Directed by: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Written by: Mark L. Smith, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter

The Revenant is a film I’ve been waiting patiently for since Inarritu’s Best Picture winning Birdman was released last year.  I went in with incredibly high expectations, and still managed to walk away feeling like they had been far exceeded.  Every aspect of Inarritu’s The Revenant is nearly perfect: from the ambitious, high-energy direction, to the gorgeous cinematography, the incredibly physical performances by our lead actors, and the solid and unobtrusive score.  The Revenant is the incredible story of one man’s survival in the dense American wilderness, braving his own colleagues, wildlife, and the angry war-party of Native American warriors who are hunting the trapping party through the forests.  After being viciously attacked by a bear and left for dead, Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) hunts for the man who left him and killed his son, and he’s not going to let anything get in his way.  Alejandro G. Inarritu’s follow-up to the incredible Birdman takes advantage of excruciatingly long takes in the same way his previous film did, but never feels forced or like a gimmick.  Instead, Inarritu’s film feels dreamlike, while also maintaining a great deal of authenticity and gritty realism.  It’s also very clear that his photographer, the great Emmanuel Lubezki, has learned a great deal from his time working with director Terrence Malick.  The scenery is breathtaking in every last shot of The Revenant, bringing the film to life with the incredible use of natural lighting.  Inarritu manages to direct another very good (but flawed) performer to what I would call the best performance of their career in the film, finally shutting up those on the “give Leo an Oscar” bandwagon.  DiCaprio has never been better than he is under Inarritu’s direction, disappearing completely into the role of Hugh Glass.  His performance is so physical that it’s painful to watch, making me believe every bit of pain and desperation being felt by the abandoned guide.  Complementing DiCaprio’s terrific performance is Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald, the man who has left Glass for dead.  Hardy is incredible as well, and I’m astounded to hear that he’s finally picked up the Oscar nomination that he so truly deserves.  The Revenant is a nearly perfect film that is being unjustly picked apart by critics for being “empty and soulless”, which is a hilarious criticism in a year that saw Mad Max: Fury Road of all films become one of the most universally praised films of this decade.  Don’t listen to the detractors, do yourself a favour and see The Revenant now.  It’s an experience the likes of which comes all too rarely in Hollywood filmmaking, and one you absolutely shouldn’t miss out on.

deb8edab-19f9-43c4-bf02-b904ebdcb5841. It Follows
Directed by: David Robert Mitchell
Written by: David Robert Mitchell
Starring: Maika Monroe, Keir Gilchrist, Olivia Luccardi, Lili Sepe, Daniel Zovatto, Jake Weary

A controversial pick for my favourite film of the year, but one that still stands out from the pack even six months after seeing it last.  It Follows is the most terrifying film I’ve ever seen, a statement I absolutely don’t say lightly.  While its thrills and chills may not linger in the back of your mind like that of The Exorcist, Rosemary’s Baby, The Conjuring, The Babadook, or other such supernatural (and psychological) films, It Follows is one of the only movies that has ever kept me up at night as a fully grown adult.  The rare highly-acclaimed horror film, directed by David Robert Mitchell in his sophomore effort, does things differently than most modern horror movies do.  It’s funny at times, features an incredibly likeable cast of principle characters, and has a plot that most anybody on this earth can relate to in some way.  It does for sex what Jaws did for the ocean, and what Psycho did for showers.  It Follows sees the young Jay (Maika Monroe) develop a sexually transmitted disease (or curse) from her late-Summer lover.  He explains the rules of this curse to her, and tells her that she has to pass it on before it’s too late.  She can’t trust anybody, because it can disguise itself to look the somebody she loves, or a complete stranger.  There is no cure, and it will find her.  With the help of her sister Kelly (Lili Sepe) and her friends, Jay is going to find the answers she needs in order to get rid of the curse that now plagues her every waking moment.  Mitchell’s film is genuinely frightening, thanks in part to his terrifically subtle direction.  It Follows does not feel like a second film, but instead feels like something coming from a seasoned veteran of the Hollywood scene.  Mitchell never tries to insult the audience by going for cheap scares, instead building up the tension until you can’t possibly take anymore.  It’s in these moments where the film is at its scariest, and when you can feel your skin crawling as you watch young Jay and her friends struggling to survive something completely incomprehensible.  It Follows is made even scarier by the fact that absolutely nobody can be trusted, whether they look friendly or not.  You know something’s coming for them, no matter how far away they can possibly drive.  The paranoia felt throughout the film is unlike anything I’ve seen, harkening back to films like 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (and the original film, of course).  The script is smart, never panders to its audience, and never underestimates our intelligence, either.  The lead performance by Maika Monroe is incredibly believable, bringing her from a lovely young woman in the beginning, to a tired, anxious, and paranoid one by the very end.  On top of incredible writing and direction by David Robert Mitchell, and terrific performances by most of the cast, It Follows features one of the most unique scores of the year.  Composed by Disasterpeace, the electronic score is incredibly unsettling, and to be honest just sounds pretty amazing when you’re out and about taking a walk.  It’s a soundtrack I’ve returned to over and over again since viewing the film, and one that has sadly missed out on awards season because of the film’s small stature.  It Follows is a horror masterpiece, and without a doubt my favourite film of 2015.  It may not be perfect in the eyes of everybody, but I’ve never experienced a film so charming and terrifying all at the same time.  If you love horror films and somehow haven’t seen it yet, seek out It Follows by any means necessary.  It’s tremendous.

Part 1 (#20-#16) can be viewed here
Part 2 (#15-#11) can be viewed here
Part 3 (#10-#6) can be viewed here

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Sicario (2015)

Sposter1icario (2015)
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro, Daniel Kaluuya, Jon Bernthal

Just when I was ready to write off 2015 as being a relatively underwhelming year for Hollywood, a true masterwork rears its head and absolutely blows my expectations out of the proverbial water.  Sicario is the latest from Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve, known previously for 2013’s Prisoners and Enemy, and the Academy Award-nominated Incendies.  Villeneuve’s Sicario reaches new heights for the established director, and it’s going to very interesting to see whether or not he’ll be able to top it in future outings.  The film follows FBI agent Kate Macer (played by the excellent Emily Blunt) as she enlists in a shadowy task force whose sole purpose is to create chaos on the United States-Mexico border, and further the war against established drug cartels in the area.  Tagging alongside agent Macer is her partner-in-crime Reggie Wayne (Daniel Kaluuya), and mysterious Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) and his silent, but deadly partner Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro).  At its heart, Sicario is about revenge, chaos, bureaucracy, corruption – and the occasional importance of corruption, and most importantly about necessary evils.


Emily Blunt as agent Kate Macer, lead actress in Sicario.

Sicario can be classified as being many different genres; crime, action, drama, but in my opinion this is the tightest, most thrilling film I’ve seen for a very long time.  Villeneuve’s film is brooding, quiet, and relentlessly dark.  There was not a single moment in its run-time where I didn’t feel absolutely captivated by the story being unravelled, the incredible performances from the entire leading cast, the terrific score by Johann Johannsson, and the tight and restrained direction from Denis Villeneuve (backed by some terrific cinematography by legend of the craft Roger Deakins).  I hate to use this tired cliché, but I was very literally on the edge of my seat throughout the entirety of the film, and I would go as far as saying this was probably one of the best theatre experiences I’ve ever had (with the exception of the obnoxious pair sitting in front of me, but that’s for another time).  In short, Sicario is a breath of fresh air in the current state of big budget films, and an absolute revelation in nearly every way. Filmmakers like Denis Villeneuve seem to be trying to usher in a new era in Hollywood filmmaking, akin to the New Hollywood movement of the 1970’s (which featured filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Hal Ashby, John Carpenter, Peter Bogdanovich, and a host of other highly influential names), taking material that could have been completely mediocre in the hands of a less talented filmmaker, and instead elevating it to be something truly special.

There are two absolute highlights in Sicario, and their names are Emily Blunt, and Academy Award winner Benicio Del Toro, both of whom put in two of the best performances I’ve seen all year-long.  Blunt’s Kate Macer is such a conflicted, strong – and yet terrified and out-of-place, and independent character, and she absolutely nails it.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see Emily Blunt as a front-runner for this year’s Best Actress at the Oscars, competing with heavyweights like Jennifer Lawrence (Joy), Brie Larson (Room), and Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara (Carol) among others.  On the other side of the fence, Benicio Del Toro’s Alejandro is quiet, cold, and calculated, making this his best performance since Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, which netted him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.  Del Toro is terrifying at times, while always remaining mysterious and sympathetic, making his performance and Alejandro’s character arc a constant joy to watch unfold.  


Benicio Del Toro as Alejandro in Denis Villeneuve’s latest crime thriller Sicario.

Sicario has more in the common with Kathryn Bigelow’s incredible Zero Dark Thirty than it does with most of Villeneuve’s previous films, which is a major compliment in my books.  Both films are morally ambiguous, ridiculously intense and thrilling, and procedural in every sense, showing both sides (bureaucracy and the actual implementation) of such a high risk government operation.  Villeneuve’s direction is subtle and never too flashy, perfectly paired with Roger Deakins’ fairly restrained photography, and the constantly pulsing and pounding score by up-and-coming composer Johann Johannsson.  These elements make the procedural elements of the film absolutely riveting, never losing the attention of its audience.  I have very high hopes for Sicario and its performance at the Academy Awards, and will be crossing my fingers as Oscar season approaches.  

Sicario is easily my favorite film of 2015 to date, featuring incredible performances by Emily Blunt and Benicio Del Toro, backed by an incredible supporting cast, tight direction by Denis Villeneuve, and terrific photography by the much revered Roger Deakins.  If you are the least bit interested in crime thrillers with constant twists and turns, and are okay with moral ambiguity in film, then do yourself a favor and see Sicario.  Don’t even finish reading this review, just go now.  This film is nearly perfect in every way, and already has me excited for a re-watch.  Sicario gets my highest recommendation.

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